Leo and the Rock

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Before Leo had rejected the canon, both the Emperor Marcion, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Anatolius, had written to him in conciliatory tones. Marcion hoped (Leo, Epistles CII) that now Rome’s doctrinal position had triumphed , that Chalcedon could be ratified. Anatolius went along the same line in another December letter (Price III pp. 138-142) in which he tried to convince Leo that his delegates had reported things incorrectly and stated clearly they had not simply sent him the canon as a conciliatory measure but for his approval:

This decree has been transmitted to your sacredness by the holy council and by us in order to receive from you approval and confirmation.
He went on the ‘beg’ him to do so so that ‘everything that was transacted in writing at this holy and ecumenical council’ could then be enacted. This was not the language even of primus inter pares – it was language used to a primus. But as we have seen, Leo was not mollified and would not give his approval. He told the Empress Pucheria that delighted though he was that the Council had proclaimed orthodoxy, he was saddened that an attempt had been made to add to the canons of Nicaea for no aim higher than political advantage.

Leo’s claims were based on Tradition and Apostolicity, he could not, and did not yield them.  On 21 March 453, with parts of Palestine claiming Chalcedon was not legitimate because Leo had not ratified it Leo confirmed (Ep. 114.2) that he agrees to everything at Chaldecon which did not contravene Nicaea. Letter 116 to the empress makes the same point, adding:

Let vicious ambition covet nothing belonging to another, nor let anyone seek his own increase through injuring another, for however much vainglorious pride builds on extorted assent and thinks that its depredations can be strengthened through talking of councils, whatever differs from the canons of the aforesaid fathers [Nicaea] will be null and void.

Leo’s ratification of the Council was thought necessary by all concerned, and given the nature of the crisis in Egypt and Palestine, no one mentioned Canon 28, although clearly Leo was not ratifying it; Rome did not do so until the thirteenth century.

Leo’s claims were well-known and public; they were not contested by Constantinople. All men knew what it meant for Peter to speak through Leo. He spoke through no other Bishop. No other Bishop stood at the head of the others. No other Bishop’s ratification was sought in the way Leo’s was. Once can debate until well after the cows have come home what later men later claimed these things meant; contemporaries seem to have been clear enough. Lack of clarity came only when men desired it – as is so often the case.

Loose talk about Caesaro-Papism conceals a harsh reality. In Constantinople the Patriarch owed the claims he made in 451 to the fact he was the Imperial Patriarch;  Church and State were one. The Roman Empire was effectively a theocracy – at Constantinople. Rome, deserted by the imperial bureacracy, threatened by Huns, and already much reduced in population, owed its claims solely to Apostolicity. In upholding them, Leo was doing what generations of his predecessors would do – resisting the claims of the State to dictate to the successors of Peter.

The practicalities of doing this were never less than problematic. It might have been Stalin who famously asked ‘how many divisions has the Pope?’, but he was hardly the firsts. From Justinian through to Hitler, powerful men would threaten the Pope, even hold him hostage. The Popes would create their own State for safety and invent Western diplomacy to protect it. Whatever the modalities, the reasoning was consistent – Peter spoke through the Pope and against that Rock not even the Gates of Hell would prevail Nor have they, nor can they. On that we have His promise.

This ends this short series – my thanks to those who have followed it, and to Jess who asked for it.

Leo & Canon 28

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I have no theoretical objection to theory. I have no philosophical objection to philosophising. But for preference, I like them grounded in history. Of the writing of treatises, polemic and tracts about Papal primacy there is no end. Catholics tend to come down on the Catholic side of the argument, non-Catholics ones on the other side. Both are convinced that history is on their side; they know, they wrote the history.

What is going on here is an attempt to establish what men in the fifth century believed they were saying when the Chalcedonian Fathers declared that ‘Peter speaks through Leo’; we know what the non-Chalcedonian Fathers made of it, so we can leave them where they wanted to be – out of it.

Canon 28 of the Council was, as we have seen, opposed by Leo’s representatives, but passed by the majority, and then Leo’s consent sought. It was not granted. Leo’s letter to the Emperor Marcian, written on 22 May 452 may be seen in full here. The parts most relevant to our argument are as follows:

Let the city of Constantinople have, as we desire, its high rank, and under the protection of God’s right hand, long enjoy your clemency’s rule. Yet things secular stand on a different basis from things divine: and there can be no sure building save on that rock which the Lord has laid for a foundation.  …….

For the privileges of the churches determined by the canons of the holy Fathers, and fixed by the decrees of the Nicene Synod, cannot be overthrown by any unscrupulous act, nor disturbed by any innovation. And in the faithful execution of this task by the aid of Christ I am bound to display an unflinching devotion; for it is a charge entrusted to me, and it tends to my condemnation if the rules sanctioned by the Fathers and drawn up under the guidance of God’s Spirit at the Synod of Nicæa for the government of the whole Church are violated with my connivance (which God forbid), and if the wishes of a single brother have more weight with me than the common good of the Lord’s whole house.

St. Peter had founded Rome and Antioch, St. Mark, Alexandria; Constantinople owed its foundation to the Emperor, no Apostle had founded it and any priority it claimed could not be justified on the grounds the other Sees used. Leo’s own representatives, who had not been present when the canon was passed, had protested:

The apostolic see ought not to be humiliated in our presence, and therefore we ask your sublimity to order that whatever was transacted yesterday in our absence in prejudice of the canons or rules be nullified. But if otherwise, let our formal objection be recorded in the minutes, so that we may know what we ought to report to the apostolic man the pope of the universal church, so that he may pass sentence on either the insult to his see or the overturning of the canon. (Price and Gaddis, Acts of Chalcedon, III, p. 91]

Neither tradition, nor apostolic authority sanctioned the novelty that was Canon 28. Its sole basis in ‘tradition’ was canon 8 of Constantinople 381. But this canon was controversial at Rome, and in the form it was recorded at Chalcedon in canon 28 it was also inaccurate, as the Pope’s delegate, Paschasinus pointed out in the sixteenth session. There is a difference between the Greek and Latin versions of the Acta, and since the original is no longer extant, we cannot tell which version is more accurate.

The Latin version asserts Roman primacy, the Greek version omits this. In contemporary terms this did not matter since what was actually at issue was not the relative standing of the two sees but Constantinople’s jurisdiction in the east. It was only later that this difference was elevated to one of importance

But, as we have seen, it did not matter which version was advanced, the one in the canon itself or the conciliatory one put to Leo, he was having none of it because it infringed his unique apostolic privilege. There is no hyperbole, no poetic language – and no chance of misunderstanding. If we note in passing that Leo’s claims were far less limited than those of the modern Papacy, it ought to give all sectarian viewpoints pause for thought.

Leo and authority

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If Leo’s first contribution to the delineation of what ‘primacy’ meant was to establish what it meant to say that ‘Peter speaks through Leo’, his second was to establish what this meant in relation to the jurisprudence of the Church. If Christ spoke through Peter who spoke through the Pope, it followed that the latter dispensed Divine Justice. Leo explained in a sermon delivered on 29 June 443:

there cannot be too much severity or too much lenience where nothing is bound, nothing loosed except for what the blessed Peter has loosed or bound.

The power of Christ that was manifest in Peter who shared his power by participation was thus conferred upon the bishop of Rome – through whom Peter spoke.

Thus did Leo answer the questions of who had the authority say what was and was not Scripture, and how it should be interpreted. It was Peter’s continued presence in the acts of the Apostolic See, such as the formulation of doctrine and the exercise of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, which ensured the unity and orthodoxy of Christ’s Church. Thus was ensured something which to others might seem a paradox – the security of tradition and of legitimate developments of understanding which, to some, would seem to be change.

Tradition was the unbroken connection to the Apostolic past; but since that was alive in Peter speaking through the Pope, so developing understandings of the Faith once given could be distinguished from the mere opinion of men.

As Susan Wessels puts it in her, Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome (p. 293):
The relationship between Christ and Peter, and between Peter and the bishop of Rome. enabled Leo to conceive of the apostolic see as the sole repository of a living and fluid tradition whose actions were imbued continuously with the divine power of its origin.

Thus, when the Fathers at Chalcedon said ‘Peter speaks through Leo’, they were doing no more than echoing something understood by Leo and those who read his sermons and letters. But how did this work in practice? Was it no more than a theoretical claim by Leo? The controversy over Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon offers us a case study.

At the end of the Council, the Fathers had ratified a new canon, Canon 28, which, on the basis of what had been decided at the Council of Constantinople in 381, conceded to the See of Constantinople the second place in the Christian Church. As the Fathers explained:

And we further inform you that we have decided on other things also for the good management and stability of church matters, being persuaded that your holiness will accept and ratify them, when you are told. The long prevailing custom, which the holy Church of God at Constantinople had of ordaining metropolitans for the provinces of Asia, Pontus and Thrace, we have now ratified by the votes of the Synod, not so much by way of conferring a privilege on the See of Constantinople as to provide for the good government of those cities, because of the frequent disorders that arise on the death of their bishops, both clergy and laity being then without a leader and disturbing church order. …

We have ratified also the canon of the 150 holy Fathers who met at Constantinople in the time of the great Theodosius of holy memory, which ordains that after your most holy and Apostolic See, the See of Constantinople shall take precedence, being placed second: for we are persuaded that with your usual care for others you have often extended that Apostolic prestige which belongs to you, to the church in Constantinople also, by virtue of your great disinterestedness in sharing all your own good things with your spiritual kinsfolk. Accordingly vouchsafe most holy and blessed father to accept as your own wish, and as conducing to good government the things which we have resolved on for the removal of all confusion and the confirmation of church order

If this sounds as though the assembled Fathers were nervous about Leo’s reaction, it was because they were. His delegates at Chalcedon had opposed the canon, saying that only the Pope could confer such precedence. The Fathers were, they told Leo, confident that they were acting as he would have wanted. They could not have been more mistaken.

Peter speaks through Leo

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It is easy (and so often done) to assume that from the beginning the Papacy based itself on the Petrine verses in St. Matthew’s Gospel. The Eastern Orthodox like to point out that those claims were cast in terms of ‘primacy’; they are correct. But what did that much-disputed word mean to those who used it in the early Church? If we are to understand this, we need to understand something about Roman ideas of inheritance and authority – ideas which were shared across the whole Empire – including Constantinople.

St. Leo the Great made two main contributions to the developing understanding of what ‘primacy’ mean. The first amounts to an assertion that the past existed in the present, not just because he was Peter’s successor, but in the form of a direct and present link between the Apostle and the Pope. As he put it in his sermon on 19 September 443 (Sermon 3.4)

Regard him [Peter] as present in the lowliness of my person. Honour him. In him continues to reside the responsibility for all shepherds, along with the protection of the sheep entrusted to them. His dignity does not fade even in an unworthy heir.’

This is what Leo understood by the saying of the Chalcedonian Fathers: ‘Peter has spoken through Leo. (See here also W. Ullmann, ‘Leo I and the Theme of Papal Primacy’, Journal of Theological Studies 1960, pp. 26-28).

Under Roman jurisprudence, a person was supposed to be present in his legal representative, even as the deceased was in his heir. The same jurisprudence was present in the eastern empire, so to argue that anyone in Constantinople would have been ignorant of this conception of what it meant for Leo to have said what he had said seems to strain credulity. Indeed, as K. Shatz puts it in Papal Primacy From Its Origins to the Present (1996), Leo made ‘the “church of tradition … into the church of the capital city that extends its laws to the whole world.’ (pp. 33-36 for the argument).

On this understanding the Pope was not simply Peter’s representative but his living successor – Peter spoke through him. Thus, Rome’s judgments and decrees were rendered universal because the Holy Apostle was understood to be present in Leo and in the system of justice he administered. As Leo put in in that same sermon on 19 September 443 (3.3):
Persevering in the fortitude he received, blessed Peter does not relinquish his government of the Church. He was ordained before the others so that, when he is called rock, declared foundation, installed as doorkeeper for the kingdom of heaven, appointed arbiter of binding and loosing (with his definitive judgments retaining forces even in heaven), we might know through the very mysteries of these appellations what sort of fellowship he had with Christ. He now manages the things entrusted to him more completely and effectively. He carries out every aspect of his duties and responsibilities in him and through him whom he has been glorified.

So, if we do anything correctly or judge anything correctly, if we obtain anything at all from the mercy of God through daily supplications, it comes about as the result of his works and merits. In this see his power lives on and his authority reigns supreme. This, dearly beloved, is what the confession has obtained [Matthew 16:18]. Since it was inspired by God the Father in the apostle’s heart, it has risen above all the uncertainties of human thinking and has received the strength of a rock that cannot be shaken by any pounding.

It is Peter’s presence that brings about the Christian universalism that Leo envisoned himself exercising. If we look at his letter to the bishops of Illyricium, 12 January 444, placing them under Anastasius, the bishop of Thessalonica, and telling them that serious disputes must be referred to Rome, we see him exercising that power of which his sermons spoke.

The primacy of Rome was not simply the result of Apostolic succession, or of inhertance from St. Peter, but of this very special relationship which ensured that Peter spoke through the Pope. As Leo says in a sermon given on 29 September: [Sermons 5.4]


our solemnity is not merely the apostolic dignity of the most blessed Peter. He does not cease to preside over his see but unfailingly maintains that fellowship which he has with the eternal Priest. That stability which he received from Christ the rock (by having himself been made ‘rock’) has poured over onto his heirs as well. Whenever there is any show of firmness, it is undoubtedly the shepherd’s fortitude that appears.


Leo’s views are set out in fuller form in a sermon preached on 29 June 443 (Sermon 83.1) in which he makes it clear that since Peter exercises the Lord’s power on His behalf, so too does the Pope exercise the powers of Christ Himself, as Peter speaks through him.

This is not a claim made by any other Bishop. It was made in public by Leo in his sermons and letters, and it was based firmly upon Scripture, patristic testimony and the common law of the Empire. Before examining how it was exercised in a situation where there was a dispute, we must turn to Leo’s second contribution to the delineation of the Petrine primacy.

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